By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information Coordinator
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – With summer kicked into high gear, the pieces of another Tennessee Tech soccer puzzle have started to take shape, as the Golden Eagles and head coach Steve Springthorpe announced the 2017 fall schedule. Equipped with a healthy dose of non-conference competition that includes a pair of SEC schools, Tech eyes a 19-match slate that boasts its fair share of intrigue and anticipation.
The upcoming three-month bash unwraps with an exhibition on Aug. 8 against Kennesaw State, the first of two-exhibition tilts, with Tech also welcoming Chattanooga to Cookeville on Aug. 11. Regular season action officially kicks off with an Aug. 18 trip to Vanderbilt in the initial leg of a two-match road trip that will see the Golden Eagles head to East Tennessee State on Aug. 20. The home opener is slated for Aug. 27 against Western Carolina, and TTU's other SEC matchup is at Alabama on Sept. 10.
"I feel like we have a schedule that is going to be pretty competitive," head coach Steve Springthorpe said, when asked his initial thoughts on the 2017 slate. "In fact, it's probably our toughest schedule that we've had here in a number of years and certainly since I've been here. Even from the get go we open up with Vanderbilt on the road, and then you go through the rest of it and you see a number of high quality opponents including Alabama, Middle Tennessee, UAB, and then of course ETSU and Western Carolina, who always battle us tough. It's a good schedule."
The challenging non-conference agenda has the potential to play significant dividends come OVC play, and with a roster chock full of seniors and leaders, Springthorpe is eager about the possibilities that the 2017 schedule possesses.
"This schedule has a feel to it that will challenge us non-conference wise and that's exactly what we wanted to do," the fourth-year head coach claimed. "It was built that way specifically because we have a lot of seniors on our team. We have a bunch of great leaders and our team has progressively been getting better every year, so now is the time that we need to go ahead and challenge ourselves with a tough non-conference schedule. Then, the great teams you played during the non-conference might have showcased areas that your team needs to improve on, so we will now have opportunities to do so as we head into OVC play."
Tech's home opener with Western Carolina begins a three-match home stand that will feature a Sept. 1, under the lights affair with Middle Tennessee, before Georgia State comes to town on Sept. 3. The Golden Eagles fell 1-0 in double overtime last year at Western Carolina, but knocked off MTSU, 3-0, in Murfreesboro. The only other non-conference opponent that Tech connected with last season was ETSU, a match that ended in a 1-1 draw in Cookeville.
Following the three-straight at Tech Soccer Field, the Golden Eagles will flock into a four-match road trip that will include the start of OVC competition. Tech begins the quartet away from Cookeville with a Sept. 8 meeting at UAB, promptly followed by a Sept. 10 matchup at Alabama, an anticipated rematch with the Crimson Tide after Tech secured a 2-1 win in 2015 for the program's first ever win against an SEC school.
"Alabama has been getting better and better over the last few years and like Vanderbilt they have a relatively new coaching staff over there," Springthorpe noted. "When we played them two years ago it was the first year for that staff and they've made changes and have done some things differently since then. As a matter of fact, both Alabama and Vanderbilt we right on the cusp last year of having a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament. They are both great programs in the SEC."
After the tilt in Tuscaloosa, the Golden Eagles will christen their OVC slate with a Sept. 15 match at SEMO, before a quick turnaround and a trip to Jacksonville State on Sept. 17. Tech's first conference home match will be against the back-to-back regular season champion, Murray State, locking up with the Racers in a Thursday, Sept. 21 match at 7 p.m. CT.
Following a match at Belmont on Sept. 29, and a home tilt at night against Austin Peay on Oct. 1, the Golden Eagles will play at the defending OVC Tournament champion, SIUE, on Oct. 6 in the first of two-straight up north. Tech will close out its brief stay in the "Land of Lincoln" with an Oct. 8 meeting at Eastern Illinois in the final road regular season match.
TTU will close out the regular season with three-straight at home, squaring off with Morehead State on Oct. 13, Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 15 and UT Martin on Oct. 22.
A new-look OVC Tournament will now feature four rounds of action, thanks to the inclusion of eight teams in the postseason field. The top two teams will earn a double bye and advance straight to the semifinals, hosted by the No. 1 seed and regular season champion. The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds will earn a single bye and host a second round matchup, while the No. 5-8 seeds will lock up in first round battles.
The first round is scheduled for Oct. 27 and the second round will take place on Oct. 29. The semifinals will occur on Nov. 3, and the championship match is slated for Nov. 4.
The Golden Eagles are coming off a two-year run arguably as good as any in school history. Tech's 19 victories over the last two years are the most in back-to-back seasons since 2002-03, and the club's 12 conference victories in the past two seasons are the most in a two-year window in program history. TTU has appeared in the OVC Tournament semifinals in each of the last two years, a first since the tournament expanded to six teams back in 2003.
Photo by Tony Marable